INDIANAPOLIS – Whether it was North Side Gym in Elkhart or the Southport Fieldhouse, or packing Evansville’s Ford Center with 11,000 supporters in September 2018, President Trump was at the spearhead of a populist movement. His MAGA rallies filled Indiana’s basketball palaces, with thousands who couldn’t get in standing outside.

In contrast, at a solo Oct. 22 campaign rally at Fort Wayne International Airport, Vice President Mike Pence drew a very, very modest 400 supporters.

Both Trump and Pence lost the Nov. 3 election, with Democrat Joe Biden polling more than 80 million votes in a 51%-47% victory. Yet 74 million voted for Trump despite the pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown. Within hours of his loss, Trump was telling friends he is considering a comeback in 2024, just as he kicked off his reelection bid just days after his 2016 upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

Conventional wisdom had it that if Trump lost, somehow, some way it would be Pence who would become the frontrunner. Yet other recent veep losers (Walter Mondale in 1980 and Dan Quayle in 1992) weren’t able to make this comeback.

Pence is now chained to however the Trump legacy bears out. A Politico/Morning Consult Poll released this past week had Trump leading Pence 53%-12% in a hypothetical 2024 primary matchup, with Donald Trump Jr. at 8%. Other GOP rising stars such as Nikki Haley and Tom Cotton barely registered.

“The wild card in all of this will be the plans and whims of Donald J. Trump,” Craig Dunn observed in his HPI column after the election. “He might decide to make another run in a bid for redemption or weigh in on behalf of one of his children or one of his loyalists. Make no mistake about it, President Trump will happily throw Mike Pence under a bus and label him a loser if it suits his purpose. He has done the same to a litany of qualified and good men and women and Mike Pence should not expect any different treatment.

“President Trump, like him or not, is a death star and tends to destroy anything that enters his orbit,” Dunn added.

Club For Growth President David McIntosh, a close friend of Pence, told Politico before the election, “If President Trump is not reelected and decides to mount that campaign … (Pence) would put any personal ambitions aside to help the president. He holds these things lightly because he knows it’s either a calling for him or it’s not. He’ll spend a lot of time being out there with members when they need to raise money and helping conservative pro-Trump candidates be successful in their races.” 

Pence is expected to move back to Indiana, write a book and give paid speeches for the next couple of years. Trump faces an array of post-White House challenges, including tax fraud investigations from New York state (which can’t be vanquished if Trump tries to pardon himself), to hundreds of millions of personal loans coming due in the next four years, to health concerns (he’ll be 78 in 2024). Trump will remain in the headlines, but how his political legacy fares is anyone’s guess.

Trump finally said on Thanksgiving Day he will leave office on Jan. 20 after months of injecting doubt. “Certainly I will. Certainly I will. And you know that,” he said after he was asked if he will leave office on Jan. 20 when President-elect Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated. “But I think that there will be a lot of things happening between now and the 20th of January. A lot of things. Massive fraud has been found. We’re like a third world country.”

Trump is now what he has long despised, a loser. Not only just a loser, but a poor loser, which in the past has not impressed most Hoosiers. He pouted for three weeks before signing off on the transition to President-elect Joe Biden. The conservative National Review editorial board called Trump’s behavior “disgraceful,” adding, “Almost nothing that the Trump team has alleged has withstood the slightest scrutiny. In particular, it’s hard to find much that is remotely true in the president’s Twitter feed these days. It is full of already-debunked claims and crackpot conspiracy theories about Dominion voting systems.”

That, in Hoosier parlance, is BS. There are no reliable reports or metrics that indicate this was a “rigged” election. Ask Connie Lawson. Yet Trump has injected an element of a illegitimate Biden presidency, particularly within the Republican Party.

Asked if he would attend the Biden inauguration, Trump said, “I don’t want to say that yet, I mean I know the answer, I know the answer. I’ll be honest, I know the answer, I just don’t want to say it yet.”

The other significant issue with Trump’s farewell (for now) bookend is the damage he has done to the election process, which had been the cornerstone of American democracy. A post-election YouGov Poll revealed that 70% of Republicans do not believe the presidential election was “free and fair.”

The danger for the Republican Party is that while Trump drew that royal flush in 2016 to win, the fact is that he lost the popular vote twice, with Joe Biden doubling the margin in this past election. Combined with Al Gore’s 2000 loss to George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote, you’d have to go back to 2004 to find a Republican (George W. Bush) who won both the popular vote in the Electoral College. Republicans have only won the popular vote in two of the last nine elections.

There have been three other former presidents who sought comebacks after failing at reelection, with two of them involving Hoosiers. President Martin Van Buren lost to William Henry Harrison in 1840, and made an unsuccessful attempt as the Free Soil Party nominee in 1848. President Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, then recaptured the White House in 1892 (Harrison never won the popular vote, either).

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt attempted a revival against his hand-picked successor (President William Howard Taft) and lost as the Bull Moose Party nominee to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the only race featuring three presidents.

A reelection of the Trump/Pence team would have given Pence a significant leg up on the 2024 campaign.

Now Pence faces his “Plan B” or “Plan C” in either a crowded GOP presidential field where he’ll have to defend his presiding over the Trump administration’s disastrous pandemic response, or play second fiddle to Trump himself. 

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com.